Vagabond Ways

Marianne Faithfull Chats About Her New ‘Vagabond Ways’ Reissue

Marianne Faithfull chats with the author of Why Marianne Faithfull Matters about the reissue of her near-perfect 1999 album, Vagabond Ways.

Vagabond Ways (Re-Issue)
Marianne Faithfull
BMG
4 March 2022

I wrote a book about Marianne Faithfull—a kind of cultural biography/love letter—without ever having spoken to her. Much to my surprise, she “rather enjoyed” it (“You didn’t get it all, but you got most of it), and she’s not one to approve of unsolicited biographies. Since the book’s publication, we’ve become friends, which is more than I ever expected.

Recently, I asked if she’d talk to me about the reissue of her near-perfect 1999 album, Vagabond Ways. After explaining that she doesn’t do interviews anymore, she agreed to it because we’re friends and because I’m a historian, not a journalist.

“You don’t sound like a journalist.”

“I’m not.”

“Good. If I were a journalist, I’d kill myself.”

Marianne Faithfull is really, really funny.

She has been pigeonholed for decades as an aging chanteuse, a torch singer, a survivor, a former sex symbol. In reality, she’s a romantic with a wicked sense of humor paired with an elegant and refined affect. She could tell me to go fuck myself (not that she would), and I would thank her and mean it. In 1999 during the recording of Vagabond Ways, she was in a good place. She’d met the love of her life, then partner and longtime manager Francois Ravard, and was ready to embark on original material after tackling the Kurt Veil catalogue. With Francois’ guidance, Mark Howard and Daniel Lanois’ production, and collaborations with Roger Waters, Barry Reynolds, Elton John, and Bernie Taupin, she manifested a neo-cabaret, rock style that progressed through the early 2000s.

However, to discuss this reissue, we needed to discuss the initial critical reception. Marianne Faithfull is now beyond reproach. She has aged out of sexual objectivity and, at 75, rests, unencumbered, in the heights of reverence, as she should. But the truth is, there’s a purgatory that women in the public eye exist in after their youth fades and before old age sets in. Marianne was in her early 50s in 1999. Reviews of Vagabond Ways referred to her as a bitterly lamenting “ravaged old hippie”; a “mummified Courtney Love” attempting to reestablish herself as an adult contemporary singer-songwriter; and finally, my personal favorite, a Rolling Stone reviewer accused her of capitalizing on her shady past while simultaneously complaining about it. He cited “Vagabond Ways” as evidence, a song about a girl who is very much not Marianne (“I had my first baby at 14…”).

Twenty-three years later, the same publications write about Faithfull with respect. They eagerly anticipate the reissue of an album they initially skewered. Perhaps Marianne is finally old enough to be taken seriously as an artist.

“Critics didn’t get it at all when the album came out,” she said over Facetime. “Negative reviews hurt at the time, but I get over it, and I forget. I know they’re wrong. I don’t stop loving and believing in the album. People are fucked up; I can’t help that. I don’t know why these guys [critics] are so weird about me, but they are. And it’s taken a long time for me to be recognized at all for the artist that I am. But I have to let that go. It must never upset me too much or poison my existence, my love of my work, my belief in myself, and what I do. It mustn’t. You’d better write that down.”

An album is a record of the past, and although people’s opinions about it and Marianne’s recollections of it have changed, Vagabond Ways has not—unless you include the bonus material: “Blood in My Eyes” (A Bob Dylan cover), “Drifting”—the chorus is “I’m drifting with blood in my eyes” so, at the very least we have a new theme happening—and demo versions of the title track, “Incarceration of a Flower Child”, “Electra,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Marianne is a perfectionist and doesn’t think releasing demos is a good idea, even when I explain to her that it’s a trend and something special for fans. I mean, I’m a glutton and a personal fan of demos. “I don’t like it, and I’m a perfectionist. That’s why my life has been quite odd. I’ve had a wonderful life, but sometimes I make it hard for myself.”

Marianne is increasingly self-reflective these days, after another brush with death, hospitalization, and enduring recovery from Covid. Songs that symbolized something in 1999 might mean something entirely different in 2022. “Vagabond Ways”, for example, was initially described as a commentary on forced sterilization. When we spoke, she explained that she never had an agenda for a song or an album. She might have a title or a lyric, and the song grows from that seed: “I wanted to write a story about a woman who had Vagabond Ways. It’s as simple as that.” I tend to believe both versions. There might even be another explanation ten years from now, and I’m not particularly interested in deciding which version is true when everything is kind of true and kind of untrue most of the time.

Another original came from a conversation Marianne had with Anita Pellenberg: “She said to me once, ‘I have known the Wilder Shores of Love.’ I wrote that down and decided to write a song about it for her.” “File it Under Fun from the Past”, “Electra”, “Marathon Kiss”, and “Great Expectations” are the remaining original compositions, but “Great Expectations” is the only (intentionally) biographical track: “That’s me, of course. It’s very true to me.” The lyrics are vague, ambiguous, sometimes contradictory (“Real for me is real for you/ What I say is almost true) a ubiquitous theme in the Marianne Faithfull catalogue.

She interprets a couple of Frank McGuinness originals, including “After the Ceasefire”, a poem she delivered in spoken word. Elton John wrote “For Wanting You” specifically for her, and Roger Waters donated his never-released song, “Incarceration of Flower Child”, which Marianne effectively made her own. Some people have theorized that Waters wrote it for his ex-bandmate Syd Barrett. Still, it’s easy to see why Marianne was drawn to it, having been for so many years a victim of a persona orchestrated for her, without her consent, by men during the British Invasion.

I believe that life often imitates art, for better or worse, and without any cosmic interference. For Marianne Faithfull, songs and albums come together organically after having chosen producers, writers, and collaborators. The finished product might appear to be indicative of some deeper emotional state, but reception is in the hands of the beholder. Women have historically been deemed solipsistic by nature and incapable of telling stories—especially when their pasts are, as I like to say, ‘shady’. I lost count of the number of reviews that refer to Vagabond Ways as ‘downbeat’, sad, or depressing. Maybe you must be an aging woman to see the beauty in it.

Marianne Faithfull’s music is romantic, thematic, and literary but has been repeatedly bastardized and filtered through this ‘depressed, addict’ trope that critics can’t seem to get past (she’s been sober for quite a while). Faithfull explains, “I write about reality. Life is sad, but it’s beautiful. What’s the point of having this fantasy that everything is upbeat? It’s not, and that’s okay.” She is one of the only artists of the 20th century who can convey this message in the particular, effective, way that she does. In my opinion, Vagabond Ways remains a testament to a period of introspection and transition for Marianne—from chaos to security, from drifting vagabond to a woman in love.

Ambiguity and contradiction are integral to analyzing music over time, in and out of the cultural context in which it was created. Marianne might have been thinking about forced sterilization when she wrote “Vagabond Ways”, but I also believe she was simply sitting around with co-writer David Courts and thought, ‘Wow, what a cool title.’ Ever the enigma, she ended our conversation with a surprise: “Vagabond Ways is my almost favorite album.” If that’s not reason enough to reacquaint yourself with this overlooked masterpiece, I don’t know what is.


Tanya Pearson is a historian and Director of the Women of Rock Oral History Project. Her first book Why Marianne Faithfull Matters was published by the University of Texas Press and Faber Books in 2021.

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
RESOURCES AROUND THE WEB
Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers
APPLY APPLY